Alejo Carpentier

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Alejo Valmont Carpentier was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1904. His parents had immigrated to Cuba two years before. His father was a French architect, and his mother was of Russian origin. Carpentier, whose first language was French (he retained throughout his life a French accent in Spanish), was sent to the best schools in Havana. While in his early teens, he and his parents made a very long trip to Europe, first traveling to Russia to claim an inheritance and later spending a good deal of time in Paris. In the French capital, Carpentier attended high school and began to acquire what was to become his awesome musical erudition. Back in Cuba, Carpentier finished his secondary education and registered at the university. He wanted to be an architect, like his father, but two events prevented his finishing his university studies. First, his father left home and was never heard from again, which forced Carpentier to earn a living for himself and his mother. Second, classes at the university were frequently canceled because of political turmoil.

Carpentier left school altogether and joined the revolutionary students who were fighting against Gerardo Machado y Morales, a dictator supported by the United States. Carpentier worked as a journalist and was instrumental in founding the Afro-Cuban movement, which hailed Cuba’s African heritage. Afro-Cubanism wanted to create a new aesthetic based on Afro-Cuban folklore, and, as a political movement, championed the cause of the exploited black workers. Carpentier was jailed briefly in early 1928; a few months later, he managed to escape to France, where he was protected by his friend, the Surrealist poet Robert Desnos.

Between 1928 and 1930, Carpentier was associated with the influential Surrealist movement, and, in 1930, he participated in one of the squabbles that split the group. He had learned from Surrealism that his desire to look at things from a non-European perspective, something he had sought through Afro-Cubanism, was a major force in all avant-garde aesthetics. It became his major preoccupation as an artist. Translated into his own terms, the issue was how to look at reality with Latin American eyes. In France, he met other Latin American artists engaged in the same quest: the Cuban painter Wifredo Lam, the Guatemalan novelist Miguel Ángel Asturias, the Venezuelan novelist Arturo Uslar Pietri, and the Cuban folklorist Lydia Cabrera. He learned from all of them, as well as from James Joyce, the great Irish writer living in Paris at the time, who was plumbing the English language in search of a new way of expressing the world. Marginality—Joyce from the British Empire, the Latin Americans from Europe in general—was the bond.

Carpentier made a living in Paris with radio work, becoming an expert on radio broadcasting and advertising; these two activities became his source of income for many years thereafter. In Paris, he needed them, for he married very shortly after settling in that city. His wife, who was Swiss, died soon of tuberculosis, and Carpentier married a Frenchwoman who accompanied him back to Cuba in 1939, on the eve of World War II.

In Cuba, Carpentier was known mainly as a journalist, for he had also made a living by writing articles about Europe for Carteles, a Cuban weekly magazine of which Carpentier had been a founding editor at the age of nineteen. His articles on the new European art had made him rather well known, but not really as a writer. The fact is that by 1939, when he returned to Havana, Carpentier had published only ¡Ecué-Yamba-O!, an unsuccessful novel about blacks in Cuba.

Between 1939 and...

(This entire section contains 1235 words.)

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1945, when he again left Cuba, Carpentier made decisions that changed his life. First, he divorced his French wife and married a Cuban woman from a well-to-do family. This new wife, Lilia Esteban Hierro, to whom he dedicated every book he wrote after 1939, remained with him until his death. Second, he immersed himself in the history of the Caribbean, in search of the origins of Cuban music. This research led to his experiments in fiction, which in turn led to his first great novel,The Kingdom of This World. First, however, he published a beautiful history of Cuban music, Music in Cuba, a book that is the key to an understanding of Carpentier’s mature fiction. In it one sees for the first time the historian at work, culling from myriad written sources a history that does not fit the mold of European history. The Kingdom of This World and all the stories collected in War of Time issue from the research and experimentation carried out while Carpentier was writing Music in Cuba.

In the summer of 1945, Carpentier moved to Caracas. Carlos Frías, a friend from his years in Paris, had founded an advertising agency and offered Carpentier an important position. Carpentier was to remain in Venezuela until 1959, when he returned to Havana, after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution. In Caracas, Carpentier worked not only in advertising but also as a journalist, writing an almost daily column on literature and music for El nacional; he also gave lectures at the university and devoted himself with great discipline to his fiction. In Caracas, he completed The Lost Steps, Manhunt, and Explosion in a Cathedral and also wrote much of Concert Baroque and Reasons of State. Although all of these novels are of the highest caliber, the most important of them is The Lost Steps.

The Lost Steps grew out of two trips that Carpentier undertook to the jungles of Venezuela. During the summer of 1948, he journeyed to the region bordering Venezuela and British Guiana, nearly on the frontier with Brazil. In the summer of the next year, he traveled up the Orinoco River toward the Colombian border. These voyages, and his work as an advertising executive in Caracas, provide the biographical background of The Lost Steps.

Carpentier returned to Havana in the summer of 1959. The Cuban Revolution seemed to be the fulfillment of all of his dreams as a young artist and political activist. He was also in the business of organizing book festivals to sell, at popular prices, books by Latin American authors. When the Revolution turned Socialist, the business was nationalized and Carpentier was named head of the newly formed State Publishing House. He remained in that post until 1968, when he was sent to Paris as cultural attaché to the Cuban cultural delegation in that city. He lived in Paris until his death in 1980, as an employee of the Cuban revolutionary government but also writing his last novels: Reasons of State, Concert Baroque, La consagración de la primavera, and El arpa y la sombra. He also traveled a great deal, lecturing widely. Carpentier gave a lecture at Yale University in the spring of 1979, a year before his death; it was his first trip to the United States since the early 1940’s, when the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) had brought him to New York to offer him a job broadcasting to Latin America.

Carpentier’s support of the Castro regime made him a controversial figure in the last two decades of his life. He never wavered in his allegiance, though his works are hardly those of a Marxist, with the exception of La consagración de la primavera, in which he turned doctrinaire. The novel was a failure. After his death in Paris on April 24, 1980, Carpentier’s remains were returned to Cuba, where he was buried with great honors.


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Alejo Carpentier, the son of French and Russian parents, was educated in France as well as Cuba, studying architecture and music. A journalist during the 1920’s, he became fascinated with Afro-Cuban culture, publishing his first novel, which dealt with this theme, shortly after being exiled for political activities. During the 1930’s he moved among avant-garde coteries in Paris, including the surrealists, although he later rejected doctrinaire surrealism. His reencounter in 1939 with the Caribbean—Venezuela, Mexico, Haiti—initiated his finest years of literary production. In 1959, he began serving the Castro government in a wide assortment of cultural offices, and he was without question the most prestigious Cuban to lend it such support. Carpentier died in Paris, France, on April 24, 1980.